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A Brief History of the Boy Scouts of America
1910 to Today

This brief history was researched and written by Scoutmaster Jeff Snowden in 1984, and has been continually updated since. It is based on considerable research (see reference list at the end) and personal experience. The history is intended to be accurate and factual, but of course will contain some personal interpretations of events. Corrections of fact are always welcome.


World Scouting


Scouting began in England in 1908, created by General Robert Baden-Powell. B-P, a 50-year old bachelor at the time, was one of the few heroes to come out of Britain's 2nd South African ('Boer') War. He was known primarily for his unusual ideas about military scouting, explained in his book Aids to Scouting. Startled to discover that many boys were using his military book as a guide to outdoor activities, he began to think how he could convert his concepts of army scouting for men to "peace scouting" for boys. Gathering ideas from many sources, he tested his program on a group of boys on Brownsea Island in August, 1907. The island camp was successful, so B-P rewrote his military book, calling it Scouting for Boys (released in early 1908). The climate was right for a youth program like Scouting, and it spread quickly around the British commonwealth, then to other countries.

Once Scouting became a worldwide phenomenon, a number of people made claims about their contributions and even priority over Baden-Powell, and B-P was not particularly careful about fully crediting his sources. The most significant source came from Ernest Thompson Seton, who had started a loosely organized program for boys in the US in 1902. Seton met with B-P in 1904 and gave him a copy of his manual, which B-P used extensively in developing his Scouting ideas.

When did Scouting start? Although there were several organizations for boys created between the 1880's and early 1900's, none of these ever approached the success of Baden-Powell's Boy Scouting, and most quickly disappeared (or merged with Scouting). For many years, the UK's Boy Scout Association and the World Organization of the Scout Movement celebrated the founding year of world Scouting as 1908, when B-P's Scouting for Boys was published. More recently, they have moved the founding date up to 1 August 1907, the opening day of the Brownsea Island test camp, even though there was no Scouting program available (even for the Brownsea Island boys) until the release of Scouting for Boys.

World Scouting Today

Today, Scouting is found in 190 of the world's 195 independent countries. The United States has a single national Scouting organization (many countries, especially in Europe, have several separate Scout organizations, divided by religion or language, with different uniforms, advancement, and national hierarchies). Scouting is the world's most successful youth movement. [More information on international Scouting can be found on our World Scouting page.]

Scouting in the United States

Boy Scouts of America (BSA)

William Boyce. The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) was founded by Chicago publisher William Boyce on 8 February 1910. At that time in the US, there were several other loosely structured outdoor-oriented youth organizations, some using the name "Boy Scout" and some using other names, and there were already a number of troops in existence using some variation of the British Scout program. Boyce's key contribution was to organize the BSA as a business. He incorporated the organization (in Washington, DC, rather than Chicago), recruited key youth professionals (in particular from the YMCA) to design and operate the program, and he provided key funding for the infant organization.

YMCA— To a great extent, the YMCA operated the BSA during its first year, particularly YMCA executive Edgar Robinson, who first suggested to Boyce that the YMCA was well positioned to provide structure and leadership to the fledgling Boy Scouts of America. Robinson set up the first BSA office next to his in Manhattan (New York City), and recruited YMCA official John Alexander to be the BSA's first 'managing secretary'.

Early Actions. The new BSA quickly established a national office, developed a temporary handbook, sought out Baden-Powell's endorsement (which they got), and continued the effort begun by Boyce to get a Congressional Charter from the US Congress (which they got in 1916). They also began an active campaign to absorb all other Scout-type youth organizations into the BSA, often simply by inviting rival leaders to be members of the new BSA National Council. The final merger was the Rhode Island Boy Scouts (started in 1910, merged with BSA in 1917). The only holdout was the militaristic 'American Boy Scout' (called 'US Boy Scout' after 1913), founded in May, 1910 (just three months after the BSA) and sponsored by publisher William Randolph Hearst. Confusion with the names of the two organizations harmed both fund-raising and the reputation of the BSA; resorting to the federal courts, and aided by their Congressional Charter and testimony from Baden-Powell, the BSA obtained a favorable ruling against the "US Boy Scout" in 1919.

Early Rivals to BSA—Some of the early, non-BSA Scouting-type programs in the US included:

The Founders. Three people influenced the BSA's development more than any others: Ernest Thompson Seton, James West, and to a lesser extent, Daniel Beard.

Daniel Carter Beard."Uncle Dan" Beard was beloved by millions of American Boy Scouts during his lifetime. A well-known artist and outdoorsman, he had founded a Scout-like organization called the Sons of Daniel Boone in 1905. While it had much in common with Boy Scouting, it lacked organizational structure (it was promoted through several magazines). It does not appear that Baden-Powell used any of Dan Beard's literature as he formulated his ideas for Boy Scouting.

Ernest Thompson Seton. Seton, a famous writer and artist, had founded a loosely structured boys' program called the Woodcraft Indians in 1902. Seton had also visited England in 1904, where he met with Baden-Powell and gave him a copy of his manual for the Woodcraft Indians. B-P used many of Seton's ideas as he developed his Boy Scouting program. Indeed, Seton's introduction to the Original Edition of the BSA's Boy Scout Handbook makes it clear that he considered himself to be the real founder of the World Scouting movement: "In 1904, I went to England to carry on the work [of fostering a "Woodcraft and Scouting movement"] there, and, knowing General R. S. S. Baden-Powell as the chief advocate of scouting in the British Army, invited him to cooperate with me, in making the movement popular. Accordingly, in 1908 he organized his Boy Scout movement, incorporating the principles of the [Woodcraft] Indians with other ethical features bearing on savings banks, fire drills, etc., as well as by giving it a partly military organization, and a carefully compiled and fascinating book." When William Boyce incorporated the Boy Scouts of America in 1910, Seton joined the new organization and became the BSA's first Chief Scout (from 1910 to 1915).

James West. West was a Washington, DC, attorney active in juvenile cases. Recruited in 1911 as Executive Secretary, West soon changed his title to Chief Scout Executive. West created a well-organized national structure that was a key to the BSA's growth and reputation. Although he had intended to make Scouting only a temporary diversion from his legal career, West remained Chief Scout Executive from 1911 until his retirement in 1943.

Power Struggle. West and Seton (and also Beard) fought constantly over the direction of the BSA. The story of their rivalry, and how it affected the young BSA, is fascinating [see The Scouting Party, 2010, by Scott & Murphy]. West was the organizer, and had the support of the executive board on the direction that BSA should go. Beard ultimately found a niche writing for Boys Life magazine and making appearances around the country. But Seton's ideas were too often contrary to what West and the board believed, and ultimately Seton was forced to resign from the BSA (December, 1915). Per Seton's request, all the chapters he had authored for the Boy Scout handbook (Handbook for Boys) were removed with the 14th printing in 1916, and replaced with similar chapters by other authors. Nevertheless, neither world Scouting nor the BSA would be what they are without Seton's contributions.

Scout-like Programs for Girls in the US

Girls in the US have had two main options similar to Boy Scouting: Camp Fire (formerly called Camp Fire Girls, started in 1910), and Girl Scouts of the USA (started in 1912). More recently, there has been more competition with several new Scout-like organizations for girls.

Camp Fire began almost immediately after the Boy Scouts, and there was involvement by BSA founders early on, including James E. West (BSA's new Chief Scout Executive), who always regarded Camp Fire as the girls' equivalent to Boy Scouting. Originally for girls only, the program became coed in 1975. [More about Camp Fire can be found on our Scout-like Organizations page.]

The Girl Scouts began in 1912, founded as the Girl Guides of America by Juliette Gordon "Daisy" Low. After a year of weak growth, Low changed the name to Girl Scouts of the US in 1913 to take advantage of the name recognition of the Boy Scouts (the organzation further slightly adjusted its name to Girl Scouts of the USA in 1947). It received a Congressional Charter in 1950. While Boy Scouting and Girl Guiding organizations in many countries have merged, the two US organizations remain completely separate. While Baden-Powell, who founded both world movements, felt that girls should be called Guides, the US program's name change to Girl Scouts has caused over a century of confusion for the public and for potential donors. Starting in 1910, a rival girls organization called the Girl Scouts of America (founded in Des Moines, Iowa) existed for a few years, but never grew beyond a small number of troop.

US Girl Scouting is divided into six divisions based on school grade:

The high-school-aged Girl Scout programs have had great difficulty competing for girls with the BSA's Exploring program after Exploring became coed in 1971. And the Girl Scouts organization has been both hostile and defensive since the Boy Scouts of America announced its plan (in late 2017) to offer programming for girls from Kindergarten through age 20.

More information can be found on our Girl Scouts of the USA page.

Since the 1990s, additional organizations have provided further competition for girls interested in a Scout-like program, including American Heritage Girls (1995), Frontier Girls (2007), and now the Boy Scouts of America (Venturing & Sea Scouts in 1971 [those programs were called Exploring & Sea Exploring at that time]; Cub Scouts in 2018; and Scouts in 2019).

More information about these and other Scout-like programs can be found on our Scout-like and Scouting Alternative Organizations page.


Last Revision to This Page: 19 October 2018
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